Chapter 2: The trombones in the early nineteenth century orchestra, particularly in Leipzig. Friedrich August Belcke, Virtuoso Trombonist.

Emerging Orchestras

On a freezing Thursday evening, December 22nd, 1808 Ludwig van Beethoven presented a concert of his works at Vienna’s Theater an der Wien, one of the finest theaters of the age. The significance of this concert is well documented, as are the circumstances surrounding the (reportedly barely adequate) performances. This concert included the premieres of the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, as well as the first public performance of the Fourth Piano Concerto, two movements from the Mass in C op. 86, the aria “Ah perfido”, and as grand finale the hastily penned Choral Fantasy op.80. As mentioned in the previous chapter, this concert was of great significance in the history of the trombone in orchestral music, since the two symphonies are indeed the first works (by a composer of stature at least) to include trombones in a symphonic context. Of particular noteworthiness is the scoring for trombones in both these pieces. In the Sixth Beethoven writes for two trombones only, in the Viennese manner (alto and tenor), whereas the Fifth includes the bass trombone to complete the familiar and traditional Mozartean section of three distinct voices. The orchestra that Beethoven assembled for this concert consisted of a mixture of professional and amateur musicians. Beethoven had hoped to have access to the orchestra of the Theatre an der Wien but many of the musicians were otherwise engaged in a performance of Haydn’s Oratorio Il Ritorno di Tobia at the Burgtheater, not even two kilometers away. Even though both theatres had employed musicians on a permanent basis, and certainly employed full time trumpet and horn players, trombonists appear generally to have been hired as needed, at least up to the time of Beethoven’s 1808 concert. The Burgtheater actually employed (from around 1801) a full time trombonist, a certain Joseph Glöggl, who had been a viola player at the Theater an der Wieden (where Emmanuel Schikaneder first produced Mozart’s Magic Flute, another significant work in the trombone’s history). The Theater an der Wien (completed in 1801), also employed at least two trombonists who very probably performed at the December concert, Franz Hörbeder and Philipp Schmidt[1]. The former bass trombonist Adelmann had passed away in 1803, and it is not known who performed on the bass trombone in the Fifth Symphony’s premiere[2]. In any case since the Theater an der Wien trombonists were not required to perform in the Haydn’s oratorio at the Burgtheater, we may safely assume that Hörbeder and Schmidt were to be the first performers of the trombone parts of the Pastoral Symphony, and therefore by default the first symphonic trombonists of significance.

Despite the reputedly inadequate performances on the night itself, there is no doubt that the concert itself caused a quite a stir in Viennese musical life. Beethoven was already an established and somewhat controversial figure in Vienna, and his music was already being performed regularly outside of Vienna. Leipzig’s Gewandhaus concerts for instance had already witnessed performances of Beethoven’s first three symphonies on several occasions; the First symphony having been performed there as early as 1801, the Second in 1804, and the Eroica already in 1807[3]. And indeed it took only a few months for both the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies to be performed at the Gewandhaus, in January and March of 1809 respectively[4], although both had to wait several years for the second performance there. Other well known works that included trombones performed at the Gewandhaus in the first decade of the century included Mozart’s Requiem (performed at least eight times between 1796 and 1810), Haydn’s Creation three times (as well as excerpts and arias sung as separate items in various concerts, as was the custom of the day), the same composer’s The Seasons (in 1802, and 1807)[5]. The Gewandhaus concert series was inaugurated in 1781, and by the turn of the century the orchestra consisted of a core of around 33 players[6]. The orchestra did not employ a permanent trombone section until the 1840’s and would have used musicians from the Thomaskirche (by default Stadtpfeifer). In fact it appears that many early performance of Mozart’s Requiem were performed without trombones, with the Tuba Mirum solo allotted to a bassoon. David Guion quotes an Allegmeine Musikalsiche Zeitung review of the 1805 Leipzig performance of the Requiem which notes…

“Earlier, one could not risk using these instruments, because Mozart wrote such difficult parts (sometimes unreasonably so), and we had no trombonists who could perform them reliably. But now a trombone section that can already be called excellent had been amongst the young men who study instrumental music according to the improved arrangement of the town musicians, and showed themselves to advantage in this and other concert and theatrical productions.[7]

It is safe to assume that from this point onwards an acceptable standard of trombone players was available to the Gewandhaus Orchestra, and it is worth noting that it was to be only ten years hence that the first known symphonic concert performance featuring a trombone soloist would take place at the Gewandhaus. We shall come to this important event in due course.

That the repute of Beethoven’s Fifth and Sixth Symphonies spread rapidly throughout Europe seems not to have been a significant catalyst for other composers to look to use the trombones in a concert music setting, however. Beethoven himself was to use trombones in only a handful of works in the symphonic setting, two of the Leonore Overtures (predating the Fifth and Sixth); the Overture Die Weihe des Hauses of 1822; in the Ninth Symphony of 1824: and in his Missa Solemnis composed between 1819 and 1823, of which three movements were premiered on the same evening as the first performance of the Ninth. In fact the there are only a small handful of works in the concert repertoire from the second decade of the nineteenth century where trombones appear, and many of these works are overtures from operas where the trombones were more regularly to be found. One significant exception is Luigi Cherubini’s Requiem in C minor of 1816, which although composed for a liturgical setting, was known to Beethoven and greatly admired by him. The trombone writing in this work is simple and chordal, and colla parte writing is eschewed. Nevertheless the influence of Cherubini’s writing can be found in Beethoven’s admittedly much more ambitious and complex Missa Solemnis.

We must remember that concert orchestras were in a fledgling state at this time. Most of the orchestras of the day were connected to theatres. The concert orchestra that had arisen in Leipzig was certainly the first of its kind. The Royal Philharmonic Society had been founded in London in 1813, with performances of works by Haydn and Beethoven, and it was they who were to commission (but not to premiere) the Ninth Symphony. A concert orchestra in Paris was formed as late as 1828. (The Orchestre de la Societé des Concerts du Conservatoire). The works of Beethoven were to become the main staple of the repertoire there as well. In any case there are few concert works of significance featuring trombones written between Beethoven’s Fifth and Ninth Symphonies, that remain in the repertoire of modern orchestras.

In light of this it is extraordinary to note that on April the 6th 1815, the highly talented and  ambitious 19-year-old trombonist Friedrich August Belcke was to perform as a soloist with the Gewandhaus orchestra. The work in question was a Potpourri für die Baßposaune by Carl Heinrich Meyer, the principal viola player of the orchestra. This was to be the first of a surprisingly substantial number of performances by a trombone soloist at the Gewandhaus in subsequent years.

Friedrich August Belcke, virtuoso and entrepreneur

Born on the 27th of May, 1795 in Lucka, on the Thuringen, Saxony border about 35 kilometers south of Leipzig, Friedrich August Belcke came from a family of professional musicians. After initial studies on the (natural) horn, he was encouraged by his father, who appears to have been a bassoonist, to switch to trombone in order to fill a vacancy in the local town band. According to former Gewandhaus bass trombonist Prof. Rolf Handrow, in his monograph Berühmte Posaunen Virtuose[8], Belcke's first didactical material were his father’s bassoon etudes, since there was hardly any pedagogical material available, and Fröhlich’s treatise was as then freshly published but probably not widely disseminated. In 1811, at the age of 12, the young musician was taken in by the Stadtmusikus Sachse in nearby Altenburg and given instruction in the Stadtpfeifer tradition, and was able to assume a position in the Altenburg town band. It seems that news of  his unusual talent upon the bass trombone spread quickly to Leipzig and he was invited to perform as a soloist at the Gewandhaus, and according to Handrow engaged by the orchestra as trombonist after this success, although another source (Mary Rasmussen’s 1961 article in the Brass Quarterly), seems to suggest that Belcke had already joined the Gewandhaus orchestra before his solo debut[9]. This seems to me unlikely however since the Gewandhaus orchestra did not actually employ trombonists on a permanent basis at that time, and relied indeed on musicians from the Thomas Church and Town Band. Of Belcke’s ground breaking solo debut, Gottfried Wilhelm Fink wrote in the Allgemeine musikalischen Zeitung:

“Finally, Herr Belcke, a young man of talent and considerable skill, astonished us with a potpourri for the trombone with orchestral accompaniment, in a style which was for us completely new. The work- by Herrn Meyer, likewise from Leipzig- was not only written with a complete knowledge of the instrument and skilled exploitation of all its principal qualities, but was also very well written as a piece of music in general, and, in spite of its great difficulty, the soloist performed it with a precision, clarity and evenness- yes, even with a fine cantilena- such as we have never before heard from a trombonist. He was applauded by all”[10]

Belcke was to remain a (perhaps peripheral) member of the Gewandhaus Orchestra for only a single season, and his activities as a soloist were certainly not confined to Leipzig. After solo performances in Halle, Merseburg and Dessau, his playing came to the attention of Carl Maria von Weber, who invited him to join the Court orchestra in Dresden (now known as the Staatskapelle Dresden), an offer which he eventually refused in order to join the Court Opera Orchestra of King Frederick Wilhelm III in Berlin (now known as Staatskapelle Berlin). From Berlin his concert travels continued unabated, and in later years his (self promoted) tours took him to Denmark, Sweden, Netherlands, Austria and France where he was to perform the Ferdinand David Concertino op.4 (to be handled in the following chapter) in 1844 and receive the gold medal of the Société des Concerts du Conservatoire.

Of particular interest to me was to discover that Belcke may have had a second solo performance of a work by Meyer in Leipzig in 1815 which both Handrow and Rasmussen seem to have overlooked. According to the exhaustive list of works per composer performed by the Gewandhaus Orchestra between 1781 and 1881, included as an appendix in Alfred Dorffel’s Geschichte der Gewandhausconcerte zu Leipzig[11], a Fantasie für Baßposaune was performed on the 9th of November 1815. Although there is no mention of the soloist we can safely assume that Belcke certainly would have been the protagonist. The scores of both the Potpourri and the Fantasie appear to have been lost, but Rolf Handrow maintains that the Potpourri was performed several times later between the years of 1821 and 1833 by Belcke’s successor Queisser (who shall assume an important place in the following chapters) under the title of Concertino pour le Trombone Basse[12]. The work has indeed been resurrected and published by Handrow. The work is not of great musical merit, to say the least, but of course as an historical document of considerable significance in the history of trombone solo literature.

Belcke was a typically well rounded musician, as were most who underwent the Stadtpfeifer training, and seems to have been a very competent pianist (he maintained a thriving practice as a piano teacher in Berlin), as well as composing a number of works for trombone as well as light piano pieces and etudes[13]. Indeed in November 1823 he was to return to the Gewandhaus Orchestra to premiere his own Potpourri for the bass trombone.

Another area in which he seems to have had a particular interest was that of instrument design and was fortunate to have been intimately involved with several significant figures at the very start of the development of the first valved brass instruments. As early as 1821 he was performing on the newly invented chromatic bass trumpet, which was later to be re-named the tenorhorn which utilized the recently patented pump valves of Stölzel. It is of not inconsiderable relevance to this study to now delve into a little informed speculation regarding Belcke’s instruments.

Belcke’s trombone

I am aware of two extant portraits of Friedrich August Belcke, one of which fortuitously shows him holding his trombone. Unfortunately this drawing is undated, but does provide insight into the state of trombone building in Germany between the early years of the century when Beethoven’s Fifth was first performed to the instruments of Sattler and Penzel which form the culmination of this study. It is unfortunate that there are hardly any instruments surviving from the first decades of the nineteenth century, so this drawing depicting Belcke can provide several clues as to how the trombone was developing.

The first point to note in regard to this portrait is the accuracy of the artist in depicting the folds of the subjects clothing. Perhaps an insignificant detail one might think but in our effort to discover more about the instrument Belcke is holding it is important to ascertain exactly how clearly the artist has recorded his subject, and more particularly his instrument. I speculate that this portrait was possibly drawn when Belcke was in his mid to late thirties, which would date this drawing to the 1830’s. He appears to be holding what we would now call a tenor trombone. But it is also worth noting that Belcke called himself a bass trombonist and this would also accord with the various descriptions of trombones, such as that those of the aforementioned Fröhlich, but also another article written in 1816 (the year of Belcke’s Gewandhaus debut) in the Allgemeine Musikalisches Zeitung by Gottfried Weber, in which the author attempts to codify the nature of the various brass instruments in use at the time[14]. In regard to the bass trombone in 1816, Weber states that both instruments are pitched in B flat, but that the “Bass” trombone possesses a wider bore and deeper mouthpiece to facilitate the lower register. It would appear that in this picture Belcke is holding a so-called Tenor-Baßposaune (i.e. tenor trombone with bass mouthpiece) as mentioned by Weber. From close examination of the instrument in the drawing several elements can be highlighted. Firstly the size of the bore appears to the trained eye to be substantially wider than a tenor trombone dating from the end of the eighteenth century (as represented by the trombones of Eschenbach or even indeed Crone, for instance).

The second and perhaps unique feature of this trombone as depicted is the apparent comparative shortness of the bell section compared to the length of the slide. The slide does appear to be extremely long and upon closer examination seems to be adorned with a small handle attached to the stay on the outer slides, to enable the player to reach the lower positions. The presence of a handle would normally be found on a bass trombone pitched in E flat, F or G, but the dimensions of the instrument as pictured would indicate a tenor trombone in B flat. Belcke does seem to have rather short arms (at least as far as the portrait is concerned), which could explain the application of this short handle. I have attempted to make my own drawing of the instrument based on the portrait. Another aspect of this instrument that sets it apart from the mainstream of trombone design is the proximity of the bell flare to the slide stays and mouthpiece. To have a trombone with the bell situated so close to the players face, placed between the first and second slide position is extremely unusual. It is worth noting that most trombones from the earlier centuries had the bell placed at the fourth position. And certainly most trombones produced after the eighteenth century have the bell placed either at the third position of slightly lower.

During my investigations into instruments of the period, I have visited a number of collections and examined a great number of trombones both in person and on the internet. The only trombone that I have found up till the present that resembles the configuration of Belcke’s instrument in any way is an F-bass trombone located in a collection in Paris, and built by the Berlin instrument builder Johann Casper Gabler (1770-1818). Gabler was considered one of the finest builders of the day and was successful in obtaining the title of Hofinstrumtenmacher, i.e. instrument builder to the Prussian court[15]. Gabler’s speciality was building instruments in silver and nickel silver, and could be considered one of the first builders to use this material, which is more durable and corrosion resistant than brass (and also much more difficult to hammer or bend). The photos show this unusual configuration and highly decorative bell garland of the Gabler bass trombone from the collection of the Musee de la Musique in Paris.

The similarities of this instrument to that of Belcke was striking and it’s highly possible that Belcke did indeed own a trombone built by Gabler. According to Herbert Heyde in his standard work Das Ventilblasinstrument[16], Belcke lived in the same house ( Haackschen Markt 9) as Gabler in Berlin in the years directly after leaving Leipzig in 1816 to join the Court Opera Orchestra. It seems highly likely that the ambitious young virtuoso made an effort to familiarise himself with the leading instrument builders of the day, and one could assume that Belcke was indeed closely associated with Gabler’s workshop. Gabler was also one of the very first builders to experiment with the newly invented pump valves of Heinrich Stölzel, who together with Friedrich Blühmel was one of the two co-inventors of the earliest valve mechanisms for altering the pitch of brass instruments.  Belcke was also to become one of the first performers on early valved brass instruments, and his presumed association with Gabler must have been of mutual benefit to both parties. Unfortunately Gabler was to pass away in 1818 at the age of 48, possibly hastened by the stress of a serious legal dispute with Stölzel over the latter’s ownership rights to instrument prototypes that Gabler had built for him during their business partnership[17].

But to return to the instrument that Belcke holds in the portrait, it appears to be one of the earliest depictions of an instrument that represents the new larger bored, fuller sounding style of trombone that was developing in Germany in the early part of the century. One of the most profound developments in the history of brass manufacturing, the invention of the valve, was also to have a significant effect on trombone manufacture. This larger bored trombone was to find its first true proponents in the instrument builder Christian Friedrich Sattler, and the trombone virtuoso Carl Traugott Queisser, to whom we now turn our attention in the following chapter.

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[1] Theodore Albrecht “Beethoven’s Brass Players”. Historical Brass Society Journal Vol. 18 New York, 2006 p.53

[2] Ibid. p.53-4

[3] Dorffel, Alfred. Geschichte der Gewandhauskonzerte zu Leipzig, 1781-1881. Leipzig 1884

[4] Ibid.                                                      

[5] Ibid

[6] Ottmar Scheiber. Orchester und Orchesterpraxis in Deutschland zwischen 1780 und 1850. Berlin 1938

[7] Quoted by David Guion. The Trombone , it’s History and Music 1696-1811 p 156

[8] Handrow, Rolf “Berümte Posaunen Virtuose”, Halle (Saale), Crescendo Brass,  2014

[9] Mary Rasmussen, Two early Nineteeth Century Trombone Virtuosi, Brass Quarterly 5, Durham 1961

[10] „Herr Belcke endlich, ein junger Mann von Talent und viel Geschicklichkeit, überraschte uns mit einen Potpourri für die Baßposaune, mit Begleitung des Orchesters, auf  eine, hier  ganz neue Weise.Dieses Stuck-von Herrn Meyer ebenfalls in Leipzig-nicht nur mit einen vollkommener Kenntnis des Instruments und gewandter Benutzung aller seiner Vorzüge, sonderen auch das Musikstück, überhaupt sehr brav geschrieben; und der Concertist  führete es, seiner großen Schwierigkeiten ungeachtet, mit einer Präzision, Reinheit, und Nettigkeit, ja sogar mit einen guten Cantilena aus, wie wir dies von Posaunisten noch nie gehört haben. Es fand allgemein Beifall. Allgemeine musikalisches Zeitung no.17. 1815 (translation Rasmussen)

[11] Dorffel. Statistik (appendix) p.41

[12] Handrow. p.11

[13] Handrow. p.18

[14] AmZ 18, 1816 quoted by Rasmussen p.8-9.

[15]  Günter Dullat. Verzeichnis der Holz-und Metallblasinstrumentenmacher auf Deutschsprachigem Gebiet. Tutzing 2010. p. 159-160

[16] Herbert Heyde, Das Ventilblasinstrument. Wiesbaden: Breitkopf & Härtel 1987 p.68

[17] Ibid.

Theater an der Wien

Gewandhaus interior

Old Gewandhaus